Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday said that he thinks President Donald Trump agreed with his assurances that Moscow had not interfered in the 2016 presidential election, but suggested that reporters ask the U.S. president what he thought.
The White House did not confirm or deny Saturday the suggestion that Trump, embattled at home by an investigation into Russian meddling, had agreed with the Kremlin leader, who U.S. intelligence agencies allege oversaw a hacking and disinformation effort.
Putin Saturday said that Trump “asked many questions” about Russian interference during their closed-door talks on the sidelines of the G-20 summit. The Russian leader said he had repeated Moscow’s stance that “there were no grounds to believe that Russia interfered in the U.S. electoral process.”
“It seemed to me that he took it into account, and agreed” Putin told reporters on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg. The Russian president added “you should ask him.”
Asked on several occasions during a briefing with reporters on Air Force One if they agreed with Russian assessments of Trump’s reaction, White House officials avoided giving a direct answer. “I think President Trump handled it brilliantly,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said repeatedly.
Putin’s recounting of the discussion of Russian interference was at odds with that of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who attended the meeting. Speaking to reporters Friday, Tillerson said that “President Putin denied such involvement,” but he did not say whether Trump accepted that assertion. Rather, Tillerson said Trump decided to move on because Russia would not admit blame.
Tillerson said, though, that the United States wasn’t dismissing Russian responsibility, and that the two sides had agreed to organize talks “regarding commitments of noninterference in the affairs of the United States and our democratic process.”
Putin expanded on that Saturday, saying that Russia and the United States had agreed to work together to “prevent interference in the domestic affairs of foreign states, primarily in Russia and the U.S.” Putin has repeatedly said that the United States has been interfering in Russian elections since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia meddled in the election to benefit Trump, but the president, unwilling to acknowledge allegations that cast a shadow on the legitimacy of his election victory, has refused to fully embrace the finding.
As a result, Trump’s public stance on the election – that “nobody really knows for sure” who hacked a Democratic Party email server – has echoed Putin’s own words.
It has also put the U.S. president at odds with members of his own administration. In an interview with CNN that will air Sunday, Nikki Halley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that “everybody knows that Russia meddled in our elections.
“Everybody knows that they’re not just meddling in the United States’ election,” Haley said in the interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “They’re doing this across multiple continents, and they’re doing this in a way that they’re trying to cause chaos within the countries.”
German leaders have said that they are concerned that Russia will try to sway their September elections in the same way U.S. intelligence says it did in the 2016 presidential vote. Putin on Saturday denied that as well.
“We did not meddle in the U.S. either, why would we need to create some problems here too? We have good relations with Germany. It is our biggest trade and economic partner in Europe,” Putin said. He added that the Western media “is constantly meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs but Moscow is taking this in its stride.”
Friday’s encounter between the leaders of the world’s nuclear superpowers had been highly anticipated at a time of increased tensions over the increasingly assertive military role in Syria, where in June Russia threatened to treat U.S. aircraft as targets.
Some in Moscow had anticipated that Trump’s presidency would offer a chance for a new era in U.S.-Russian relations, but that mood had soured over the Trump administration’s tough stand on Russia’s support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, which led to new sanctions against Moscow in June.
Putin said Saturday that the “there is very reason to expect that we will be able to restore the level of interaction that we need, at least partially.”
He also observed that “The television Trump is very different from the real man.”
“He is absolutely specific, adequately perceives his interlocutor, analyzes quickly, answers the questions he is asked and [handles] whichever subjects arise during a discussion,” Putin said.
U.S. lawmakers from both parties had urged Trump to raise the election meddling with Putin when the leaders met. Afterward, some worried whether Trump had confronted Putin firmly enough. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., dismissed the outcome as “disgraceful.”
“President Trump had an obligation to bring up Russia’s interference in our election with Putin, but he has an equal obligation to take the word of our Intelligence Community rather than that of the Russian President,” Schumer said in a statement.
Before the meeting, analysts in both countries had said that Putin was hoping for a signal from Trump that Moscow and Washington could put aside past differences and forge a new relationship. In Moscow, political leaders were celebrating Friday night. Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the foreign relations committee in the Russian upper house of parliament, called the talks “a breakthrough.”
Trump and Putin designated top officials to collaborate on the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine, Tillerson said, and also reached a “de-escalation agreement” regarding a section of Syria near the cities of Daraa and Quneitra. Jordan was also part of that agreement.
Past cease-fires in Syria have not lasted long, and Tillerson suggested he was skeptical that this cease-fire would endure.
Russia and the United States continue to disagree on the matter of Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad. Putin refuted Tillerson’s statement that Assad has “no future” in Syrian politics, saying Tillerson is a “respected man” whom “we respect and love” but “he is not a Syrian citizen,” and that Assad’s future “will be decided by the Syrian people.”
Putin’s assertive foreign policy has earned him positive marks at home, where Russians give him consistently high marks for his leadership. But the Kremlin is facing the most widespread protests since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012. Although the popular unrest is not considered enough of a threat to prevent him from winning a new six-year term next March, the discontent mars the Kremlin’s effort to portray Russians as unified in its support for their president.
Russian police have been raiding campaign offices of the organizer of the largest protests, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who has said he will run for president. On Saturday, Navalny’s staff said 52 supporters had been arrested.
Putin never mentions Navalny in public, and asked about that on Saturday, he said avoided mentioning the activist again, saying he was not interested in dialogue with anyone who offers no constructive ideas.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · David Filipov